How to Prepare for Comps (at George Mason University)

So it’s finally upon you, time to take your comprehensive oral exams! Ahh! First thing’s first – take a deep breath. You are going to make it through this ordeal alive. But you still probably want (and need) some advice on how to prepare and then how the exams will go once you’re taking them. I am happy to pass on some of the things I found to be most useful when I was preparing for and taking my comps. I will note that, as I took my comps at George Mason University, some of my advice may only apply to the culture of comps at that institution. That being said, I definitely believe a lot of the advice I’m about to give you is universal.


You Are Going to Freak Out

This is inevitable. At some point it is going to happen. And, quite honestly, don’t fight it. Don’t beat yourself up because then you will freeze. Admit to yourself that you’re freaking out and that it’s okay and totally normal. And, importantly, talk about it with others. I recommend talking to a peer preparing for or who has taken their comps. I chose to talk to one of my committee members. Just admitting to her how terrified I was made me feel better. She reassured me that it was okay to feel scared and that conversation finally allowed me to move past my fear. It feels like your whole life is riding on this exam, but as my committee chair said of my exam (scheduled at two), four o’clock will come no matter what. Either way you live, at worst you take the exam again. So go ahead, have your moment of total insanity, get it out of your system, accept the nerves that inevitably remain, and move on (or have a bunch of mini-freak outs, whatever works for you). Get it out of your system. Don’t let it paralyze you.

Know Your Learning Style

This may seem counter-intuitive to include on a list where I am telling you how to study, but it is very important to only adopt study strategies that only work for you. It’s okay to try different methods, but don’t force yourself to adopt one strategy just because someone else tells you to. You know best how you learn, and you should nurture that. Having said that, don’t be afraid to try out new learning styles. You may find one that really works for you. But if something doesn’t work, ditch it. You don’t want someone else’s rules slowing you down or freaking you out. And don’t try to change last minute. Know ahead of time what works best for you.

Be Organized

You are going to be ingesting a lot of information in what is a comparatively short period of time. Therefore, you need a system. Keep everything in order and always keep your booklist up-to-date and well curated. You’ll also need to create a file system for notes, wherever you take them. One of the most important things I did was type a separate paragraph for each book summarizing each authors’ argument. These paragraphs became a reference while I studied and didn’t want to go through all my notes. I also created individual binders for each time period and filed book reviews in them along with my notes, which I organized according to my book lists. This system may sound like overkill to you, but it’s how I needed to prepare. You’ll also need to devise a way to compile and stay on top of your schedule or you’ll never be able to move forward or study.

Have a Plan of Action

Another title for this section might be: get good at scheduling. Once you’ve figured out how to organize the material you’ll be dealing with and the best way to absorb it, you need to divide your time so that you can take notes, study, and then you need to bring your advisors on board and schedule practice sessions with them. I was coincidentally and it turns out fortuitously unemployed in the months leading up to my comps, so I was able to structure my time completely around studying. I had a routine I went through every day. I needed this structure to prevent me from goofing off, hence the importance of time management. I studied at the same times every day, I had a set order for the books I worked on, note-taking, and review. A schedule will create routine, and routine will make studying feel natural. Structuring your time is crucial to feeling and being prepared.

Find the Right Place to Study

It is really important to find someplace where you’re comfortable but still able to focus and avoid distractions. If you’re having trouble getting yourself to study in your regular spots, try out some new ones. A good study spot can make the difference between procrastination and hard work. It’s that simple.

Take Notes by Hand

At Mason, so heavily focused toward digital media, this tip may seem like a big no-no. What if I lose my notes? The solution to that is to type them up after you write them, which is a great exercise because it forces you to review and allows you to reorganize things. Because there is something about writing things down by hand that your brain really likes. I found that writing my notes by hand forced me to slow down and think about the information I was filtering from the book to my own words. Writing by hand also encouraged me to take notes in my own words, which further forced me to process and articulate what I had read. Even if you type your notes, always do them in your own words whenever possible.

Reward Yourself, Both During Your Studying and After Your Comps

Devising some sort of reward system will encourage you to finish your task. These rewards can be little or they can be big. I’ll share mine with you. I had all my books in a six foot bookcase (organized by time period and author, of course) and before I started studying I put a green sticky on the spine of each book to represent that I hadn’t worked on them yet. Every time I finished working on a book, I switched the green sticky for a pink one. It was so rewarding to see my bookshelf go from green to pink. This system was a visual manifestation of my hard work. Your tracking or reward system may be different from mine, but it’s important to mark your progress with positive reinforcement to keep yourself from feeling bogged down or discouraged. Similarly, it’s important to plan a celebration for after your comps, if only to remind you that there is an after your comps. Emphasize progress at every step, and reward yourself along the way to remind yourself of that progress, no matter how small.

Your Booklists Are Living Documents

Like it or not, your booklists are living documents. In my case, this meant adding and subtracting books to and from certain lists even in the final months before my comps. I dealt with these changes by telling myself I was simply improving my knowledge of American history and immediately determining how my new books fit in with the rest of my lists. This is the second way your lists are living documents: you need to organize them in a way that emphasizes how the books are connected, and in that regard possibilities are endless, which means you should always be thinking of new ways to organize your lists. Organizing your booklists is one of the best ways to prepare for comps, when you’ll have to repeatedly discuss books that have common themes. Anticipating thematic questions will help you prepare answers beforehand. Further, you get to take your pre-organized booklists into comps with you to preserve the connections you’ve made beforehand if you get stumped.

Trust Your Advisors

This section may apply more to the faculty at GMU – the culture of comps there is an incredibly supportive one. No one at Mason is going to mislead your or ask you’re a gotcha question, at least not on purpose. You advisors are there to help you succeed because they want to see you succeed. They will give you honest feedback but they’re not going to crush your soul. Everything they say and do is meant to help you do better. They don’t want you fail. Firstly, that would mean you’d have to take your comps again, and no one wants to go through that high stress process a second time. More than that, your advisors take genuine joy in seeing you do well. Let their belief in you give you confidence.

Practice with Your Advisors and Write Down Their Questions

Again, here I can only speak to GMU’s comps culture, but if you are a Mason PhD student preparing for your comps, practice with your advisors. This is basically a requirement, as your advisor will use your practice sessions to determine if you’re ready to test. It will also give you a chance to hone your responses and receive feedback on your skills. Most importantly, your advisors will ask you practice questions that you will likely hear again (sometimes word for word) on your comps. For that reason, write down all the questions they ask you in your practice sessions and make sure you have good answers prepared for your actual testing session. Questions will most likely be tailored to your interests, so pay close attentions to the themes in the questions you are asked, too. These themes will appear again in your comps. If you follow these steps you’ll walk into the room facing fewer surprises.

Clear your Calendar of Anything Stressful on Examine Day

For those of you that have full-time jobs, this may be hard, but trust me when I say that you want everything on the day of your exam to be easy-breezey. Give yourself time to get enough sleep (if you can sleep). Try to eat something – have your favorite or least threatening foods at hand. Take a shower or bath. Don’t try to cram – watch a T.V. show, do some crosswords, something mindless and relaxing. The whole point is to relax so that you walk into the exam confident, calm, and not feeling frozen and overwhelmed. You’ve worked so hard – use these last moments of preparation to pamper yourself and reinforce that you’ve got this. Don’t do anything to increase your apprehension or that will make you feel less confident. Do things to reinforce how prepared you are and to calm your mind and body. Let go of your fear!

During Comps

Talk About Books You Like

This piece of advice was given in a colloquium before my comps and I found it to be very useful. I also wish I’d followed it. If you are going to criticize a book, be ready to defend your point of view. Certainly be honest, but know these books are on your list for a reason and you have to be able to identify and explain their strengths as well as their weaknesses. It’s also easier to talk about books you like because you’ll enjoy talking about them, which makes the whole conversation less stressful. Positive arguments are sometimes easier to make than negative ones, and most questions will be so open-ended that you’ll be able to steer the conversation in the direction you want it to go.

It’s Okay to Say “I Don’t Know”

It’s okay to say “I don’t know.” All saying “I don’t know means” is redirecting the conversation toward something you do know. This situation is why making note of inter-book themes and connections as part of your studying is so important. So you blanked on a specific book. Demonstrate you can still answer the question with your knowledge of different books. You can still talk about gender or race or consumerism or suffering in war time (I’m sorry I blanked on you, Sparrow). You can make connections across time to show larger trends in history. Your committee is willing to let you draw a blank if you can demonstrate a different way to answer the question and willingness to try. There is also a degree of respect that comes with admitting you don’t know something. True scholars aren’t afraid to admit they don’t know, especially if they can do it in the classroom setting you’re preparing for.

Enjoy Yourself

Before I took my comps, advisors and peers told me to think of comps as a chance to have an intelligent conversation about history with scholars as their peer instead of as their student. This was exactly my experience, and I loved it. The tone stayed conversational, we laughed, and we engaged in debates about some of the best books written about one of the most wonderful subjects ever. There aren’t exactly right answers, just your willingness to make a point and defend it with the reading, all with a certain about of flexibility. You may be challenged, but you are an intellectual – relish the challenge. This love of challenges, more than anything, is the best trait you can carry with you into your career, whatever it may be. Think of comps as an official entry into the inner circle of scholars that you’ve been training to become a part of for the past few years. You love history. You want to talk about it for the rest of your life. This is just the first of many great conversations.

And there you have it! These are my greatest hits for preparing for comps. The only other thing I’ll say is make sure to give yourself plenty of time, and if you can, take your comps right after your 803s. That way your memory is fresh. And, most importantly, you are going to be fine. No matter what, four o’clock will come. You are a superstar, you are ready for this, and you should embrace the first day of the rest of your history career.

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